Developing The Art Of Questioning

By: David Xi-Ken Astor, Sensei 

I often speak about the pragmatic and existential importance of validating the information we are learning through direct experience.  In that way we come to really “know” something, which is about gaining knowledge.  Now I would like to expand on that by sharing with you some of my thoughts on journeying through the unknown, and using the skill of questioning.  For you see, questioning is an element of the art of practice.  If we do not question our experiences as they unfold though the various situations we find ourselves in, there will be very little change in our worldview, and without change we are just treading water.  And when that happens in the middle of the ocean, given enough time, we will tire and drown, or the sharks will find us.  The same is also true in our practice.  Questioning is mental action that when done skillfully will lead to awakened moments.   All Buddhist teachers encourage questioning, because without questions, we have no idea where you are in your training and understanding of Buddhist thought and doctrine.  Questioning is a sign of an active mind, silence is another form of emptiness.  That can be either good, or not, depending on the wisdom of the act of silence.  In a training situation, silence is always unexpected.

As we progress along our life’s journey, it’s difficult to avoid encountering some of the perplexing challenges we humans have confronted again and again.  Many of these experiences are related to the big questions that have always confounded the human mind for centuries.   This was the driving force that propelled Siddhartha on his quest for universal understanding over 2500 years ago.  The big questions are still the same as they were for the Buddha, Socrates, Plato,  Aristotle, Aquinas, Kant, Mills, and all other philosophers both Western and Eastern.  These are human questions, no matter what side of the world you stand on.

These big questions our serious ones.  Yet, popular cultural views of some want to focus on cracking the enigmas like the Da Vinci code.  But thank goodness, we also have others that have devoted their lives in bringing into reality the genetic codes that might lead to finding cures for disease.    And what about us?  We can work on breaking through our personal identity codes and develop even stronger characters, with integrity, ethics, and social values.   We can work on breaking through the barriers of other enigmas of our everyday life.  In every moment we work for our own liberation.

It was Socrates who lectured in public by saying, “Citizens of Athens: Aren’t you ashamed to be concerned so much about making all the money you can and advancing your reputations and prestige, while for truth and wisdom and the improvement of your souls you have no thought or care?”  Well that kind of talk didn’t do him much good did it?  He was soon sentenced to death.

Plato believed that the source of philosophy was our responding to the wonder and thrill of discovery in this vast Universe.  And the Buddha centuries earlier preached on the importance of breaking through the filters of our illusion into the light that shined on our potential for awakening to answers of the bigger questions.    To Plato, the big questions where not just about who we are and how did we get here, or is there a god, he was interested in questions on the nature of reality, or what is truth, beauty, or virtue.  He thought thru the best type of political systems and the limits of knowledge itself.  He wondered about courage, social justice, and the character of moderation.   I often wonder what it would be like if Plato and Siddhartha would have met to discuss their notion of the big questions.  What an encounter that would have been.

One of my all time favorite journalist is Bill Moyer, who said, “Every journalist worth his or her salt knows that the towering question of our time is ‘What is the human spirit?’”   Dr. Nuland, a physician and spiritual philosopher believes that the question ‘what is the nature of human kind?’ would answer, “It is our ability to seek the spirit and wonder of our Universe”.

The Buddha knew that all concerned people on the path seek to resolve these questions, and by doing so, gain intelligence, wisdom, and the ability to live more deeply.  One thing I might add to what Dr. Nuland said about human nature is the word ‘curiosity’.  To seek the wonder and spirit of this world, first requires a driving energy that sparks our curiosity.  This is a life long passion.  Our Buddhist path is a life long journey, and one of constant learning.  It is never ending.  Learning is causality itself.  Our mind is always changing and adapting to our new found knowledge.  The historian Daniel Boorstin called the human animal the “asking animal.”  And I might add that in asking, we are questioning our experiences, and in doing that, we begin to validate the answers to our questions.    Our instinct to question everything is what drives us to grow and thrive.  It is found in the child’s cry of “Why?”  When we don’t question our experiences and grow with the answers, life is not worth living.  We remain stuck with our ego-centered-mind wondering what’s what, and with no answer, remains distracted.

When we repress our natural tendency to question, we are likely to plow ahead without taking a good hard look at what we are doing and why.  And whether we realize it or not, we buy into ready-made systems of thought, habits, and beliefs that are sold to us by our culture, our families, our friends, and especially the media.  We surrender our thinking ability to others, and like the blind, we struggle to find our way in the dark.  For in the dark we will be, and remain, until we find the path again.    This reminds me of being in a herd of buffalo that follow each other over the cliff to their doom.  The Buddha challenges us to first find the path to liberation for ourselves, then to act as guides for others to follow along the way.  We lead by example.  A part of leadership is skillful questioning.

We seem to be living in times that have lost how to question.  How can we rekindle our questioning spirit’s passionate curiosity, so that we can engage more dynamically in the grand adventure of life?  How do we go about answering for ourselves the big questions that will not go away?  How can we wonder about, rediscover maybe, and plunge deeper into reality, so we can understand for ourselves what it is like to seek the spirit and wonder that is all around us if we take the time to awaken to its reality?

When we activity explore some of these big questions, it will not always provide us with final answers, as it didn’t for Plato.  So why do we do it?  Because it will help us learn to question more deeply so we can respond to life’s ultimate questions more wisely, effectively, and productively in our own reliable way.  As our rational-mind expands, it will result in our ability to develop the skills for developing the questions that matter in our personal life.  Without asking questions, the lessons gained in the Four Noble Truths will not work for us.  We question in order to change.  We change in order to stand more firmly on this Buddhist platform of ours.  Questioning determines the nature of this change.  This should be the focus of our zazen.

The big questions appear from our personal questioning process.  We don’t know it at the time, but our little questions have a tendency to point to the bigger ones, until we awaken to the wisdom of questioning itself.  The art of questioning is a wisdom practice and the quintessential component in a Buddhist practice.  What we become awakened to is the fact that it is sometimes more useful and productive to know the questions than all the answers.  Sometimes just listening to another person’s question is enough to help us farther along on our own path of discovery.  As we progress along in our practice we will become attuned to this type of inquiry, we will become increasingly more aware of not only the particular questions we are most compelled to confront, but also aware of the methods, resources, and cultural traditions that are most likely to steer us in a skillful direction.  We will also grow in our ability to ask questions that are more to the point of where we are stuck.  As a seeker on this path one day we will become finders.  Questions lead to finding answers.  This is the type of process that is utilized in koan study, for example.

When we choose to step on this Buddhist path, especially in monastic training, life is asking us a big question.  In whatever particular form it appears to us personally, it is up to us to look deeply within ourselves so we can articulate it in order to improve the interconnectiveness we all share.  It is through the ongoing personal process of undertaking this kind of larger existential quest that life’s most pragmatic challenges are clarified.   The Buddha understood this all to well, as it reflects his experience on the spiritual path of discovery, that finally was realized under the “tree of enlightenment”.   A question I ask you now, “Are you up to the challenge, the quest, the search for truth and meaning, the seeking required to find the answers to your questions?”  Whatever and however you make your quest, you many discover that final answers to the big questions of life are still elusive, but you will doubtless be able to deal with these questions much more effectively as your practice flourishes.

From a spiritual perspective, I know how unsettling so many of these questions are when lacking answers.  It is always an issue in the beginning of one’s study or formal training.  But understand that doubt, skepticism, and even dissatisfaction can propel us into wiser exploration and deeper inquiry.  Doubt can be a profound spiritual motivator.  Doubt is unsettling to the ego.  This is a good thing from a Zen perspective.  It shakes us up.  A Zen teacher will say “cultivate great doubt”.  Questions are easy, answers are not.  The big questions often don’t have answers as we expect them to be revealed to us.  The answers take a different type of body-mind perspective.  This perspective is what we work so hard to cultivate from our cushions.  Perhaps one question you can work on in your contemplative practice is “Why now?”  I think this is a good question to ask regarding anything that happens to us.   For you see, the answer to this question, is the answer to all of the big questions.

As far as the questioning process goes, each life has its own best inner direction.  The Buddha himself had two question, which have formed the basis of the Buddhist path for us today.  They are, What is the nature of suffering and its cause? and What are the practical steps to the end of this suffering?   These two questions, to which he responds in his core lesson of the Four Noble Truths, can act like healing medicine with those two basic questions functioning respectively as the diagnosis and the cure.  When it comes to the practical art of questioning and the practice of authentic rigorous self-honesty, realizing your own core question is crucially important for developing an authentic Buddhist practice.   You can never go wrong if you start with considering these three: What do I want? Whom or what do I trust? What do I feel compassionate towards?

I am reminded of what Gertrude Stein’s last words were on her deathbed.  She said, “What is the question?  What is the question?  If there is no question then there is no answer.”

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